I began to realize, amid a modernizing economy and a changing workforce, that public policies were not changing quickly enough to address the needs of the rapidly growing numbers of working women.
In the late 1970s, as a new PhD in economics from Yale University, I took a challenging job at the National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council studying the underpayment of jobs typically done by women (for example, secretary, teacher, nurse). Over the next several years I worked on other studies, such as how technological change was affecting women’s traditional occupations like receptionist, file clerk, and secretary. I began to realize, amid a modernizing economy and a changing workforce, that public policies were not changing quickly enough to address the needs of the rapidly growing numbers of working women. How could women balance fulfilling careers with happy, healthy families without access to affordable child care or jobs that provided fair wages, maternity leave, pensions or other benefits? Given that many women provided financial support on top of childcare, I wondered, how could public policy better support women and their families?
To make matters worse, most of those with the power to improve policies – policymakers and opinion leaders – relied on anecdotes and outdated assumptions that provided an incomplete picture of women’s varied experiences at home and at work. It was clear that policymakers needed better, more reliable information. I had been thinking about building an institution solely dedicated to producing such information, an organization that would be able to expand to meet what was certain to be a growing need. But I wasn’t sure I had the organizational and fundraising skills to get a new entity off the ground. I also faced a personal challenge: supporting our young family without my income from a salaried job would be difficult for my partner and me.
During this time of uncertainty, our family summer vacation took us to New England and I made a solo visit to the Hancock Shaker Village. I knew about the beautiful small products Shakers had made in their heyday in the 1800s, but Hancock has a beautiful, large, circular, multi-level, stone barn and many other substantial buildings. As I saw the lasting legacy of beauty left by this small, odd religious sect, I realized that I had, since my student years, tried to work toward social change, but had not created anything substantial that would remain for decades, or even centuries. It was an epiphany. I suddenly knew I would try to build an institution and leave a lasting legacy that could help address important social and economic issues for years to come.
Post-vacation, I ramped up my thoughts from daydreams to plans, meeting with other researchers, policymakers and advocates, and developing an agenda of work a women-centered policy research institute could do. Their enthusiasm was clear. I decided to take a leap and lean in to the challenge ahead: Establishing a sustainable research institute that could inform better policies to address the needs of women in a modern economy.
In our first research project, the new Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that not having job-protected leave for childbirth or adoption cost women workers and their families $607 million a year, a figure reported in the Wall Street Journal among other media outlets. The research shook the assumptions underpinning the public debate about family leave and informed the passage of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, now a cornerstone of U.S. work/family policy.
IWPR has continued to build a strong reputation for rigorous and objective research, trusted by journalists and policymakers alike. Most importantly, policy makers can quantify the needs of women and assess how public policies – such as the Family Medical Leave Act and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – can help women advance economically and strengthen their families and communities.